Taylor the Talent Show Fairy. Demi the Dressing-Up Fairy. Kate the Royal Wedding Fairy. Olympia the Games Fairy. Georgia the Austerity Fairy… guess which one doesn’t exist? (I know, I know, fairies don’t really… but don’t spoil it for the readers, will you?)
The multimillion-copy-selling Rainbow Magic Fairies series is, to my mind, a compelling argument for the preservation of public libraries. Do you know just how many of them there are? Over a hundred and thirty individual fairies, and a dozen or so chunkier specials, all at £4-£6 a pop… Parents of small daughters, you do the maths – not forgetting that this is a famously addictive series, and it is quite likely that your own little sugar-plum will fall on stray copies of Melissa the Marketing Fairy or Pandora the Pester-Power Fairy with cries of “I haven’t read that one yet!” It feels horribly curmudgeonly to say anything negative about a series that hundreds of thousands of small girls read with such pleasure; a series that’s as cute and wholesome as a Gwyneth Paltrow pudding, that’s all about friendship and loyalty and helping others, and the ultimate triumph of same over the mean guys. And yet… have you read more than one? I once heard an eleven-year-old boy summarise the plot of every single Rainbow Magic story in half a dozen pithy sentences (you should have seen his eight-year-old sister squirm). At a certain stage, I grant you, anything that encourages developing readers to read independently, and to read from one book to the next – by way of a well-structured series and a comfortingly familiar style and pattern – is very welcome and valuable. Even so, Rainbow Magic does reach a natural end of phase. (I am intrigued to see that while the similarly-popular Beast Quest series has developed the higher-level Chronicles of Avantia, Rainbow Magic Fairies have chosen instead to explore the lead-in level with Rainbow Magic Early Readers.) How, then, do you encourage your fairy-cosseted child to keep on reading and try something a little more adventurous?
You could make a gentle start with something quite similar. Usborne’s (I know, another shameless plug) Secret Mermaid series was written by a longstanding Rainbow Magic contributor, Sue Mongredien, and is likewise short and accessible. The undersea setting gives it extra appeal and interest, however, and the bigger stories are allowed to develop over six books at a time, encouraging readers to progress and allowing a little more differentiation between stories in the individual books. In the first six books, ordinary girl Molly finds that she can transform into a mermaid, thanks to a shell talisman, and she soon has a mission to help her new mermaid friends recover five other pieces of magic conch shell, and save them from the fearsome Dark Queen. In the second set of six, Molly helps the six Animal Keeper mermaids to track down and rescue their missing charges, from seahorses to whales, and resist a renewed attack by the Dark Queen. Mermaids have always been popular in this household, and these twelve stories were read and re-read with pleasure by my two girls.
…as were the six Silverlake Fairy School books, which offer a gentle step up from the Rainbow Magics. Orphan Lila is only a kitchen fairy in the royal palace: how can she even dream of going to Silverlake, the best school in fairyland – especially when spoiled Princess Bee Balm insists that Lila may not sit in on her lessons any more? But Lila is an unusually talented fairy – and a lucky one, too, with a very special friend and protector, as well as her loyal adopted family in the kitchens. Silverlake won’t be easy, especially with Bee Balm determined to land her in trouble at every opportunity – but Lila is keen to learn and to make friends, and to rise above Bee Balm’s provocations… and she finds that even these can have unexpectedly magical and special results. A particular mention too for Anna Currey’s delicate line illustrations, giving the series a sweetly classic feel.
For a diversion from fairies, there are plenty of appealingly short animal stories at the same level – some with magical enhancement, some without need of it. Amongst the latter, Linda Newbery’s six Cat Tales stand out, with Rain Cat and Smoke Cat being particular favourites. Short definitely doesn’t mean bland or underwritten here: the stories are both easy to read and quietly satisfying, with gentle humour, warm heart and occasional poignancy, as well as more charming illustrations from Stephen Lambert. If you are not a cat person – and if that therefore makes you a dog person – try Newbery’s Barney the Boat Dog, four more stories for the same stage, with their unusual and appealing canal-boat setting.
Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series has long been beloved of newly-independent readers and their parents, following the accident-prone career of Mildred Hubble and her loyal friend Maud at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Young Witches. Well-meaning Mildred is the despair of her teachers and a ready target for Ethel, the spiteful teacher’s pet, for whom spells never seem to go wrong. Mildred’s scrapes are both endearing and hilarious, and in the end she is never quite the duffer she imagines… First published almost forty years ago, the series well deserves its modern classic status, and the popularity of Harry Potter has undoubtedly given it a welcome boost in this generation. Miriam Margolyes reads a delightful audio version, rather grandly, like a dowager with a keen sense of humour.
Although there isn’t a fairy in sight, Alexander McCall Smith has a nice line in short chapter books which my girls also enjoyed when ready to move on from Rainbow Magic. The five Akimbo books draw on the southern African setting McCall Smith knows so well, with the boy hero an idealistic ranger’s son on a game reserve, and the African landscape and wildlife give the warm-hearted stories an extra vividness and appeal. Another fourteen tales are set around the real and imagined world, from India to the Wild West, with a cast of fantastical characters and a sequence of improbable events unfolding around sparky child heroes and heroines. I particularly appreciated The Banana Machine’s Patty, restoring the family fortunes with a special machine for straightening bananas (although having to keep quiet about the fact that she has sourced vital parts from her aunt’s kitchen mixer and ancient car). Not, perhaps, a book that you would wish your children to emulate to the letter… but as long as household machinery is out of bounds, a lovely story with a friendly voice and plenty of lively, telling detail.
More recommendations from the home team: Rupert Kingfisher’s Madame Pamplemousse is a series of delicious confections, prettily packaged like petits fours. With hindsight, the style is more of a step up from Rainbow Magic, although there were no complaints at the time: witness the catalogue of sausages and cold meats at the beginning of Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles which includes (vegetarians please look away): “Bison and Black Pepper, Wild Boar and Red Wine, and Minotaur Salami with Sage and Wild Thyme… Salt-Cured Raptor Tails, Pterodactyl Bacon, Smoked Sabre-Toothed Tiger and Rolled Tyrannosaurus Rex Tongue”, not to mention “Roast Piranha with Raspberry Coulis” and “Giant Squid Tentacle in Jasmine-Scented Jelly”. You don’t have to know what a raptor is, or what its salt-cured tail might amount to… but if you are easily put off by the exotic and unfamiliar, you will perhaps find this book less easy to enjoy. With which, the story at the book’s heart is an appealing mix of the brilliantly original and the age-old: little Madeleine, put-upon pot-washer in her horrible uncle’s flashy Paris restaurant and secretly a talented chef, is sent to work for and spy on the mysterious Madame Pamplemousse. Madame P has a secret recipe that Madeleine’s uncle believes will make his fortune. Unfortunately, Madeleine proves an apt pupil and a terrible spy, and when she returns to the restaurant, she finds herself serving generous portions of just deserts all round. Just when she ought to triumph, will her uncle contrive to steal her glory and make her life a misery again? Of course, judging by the two sequels, one may assume that some kind of a solution was reached…
I can’t quite get over the habit of writing up favourites last. I firmly believe, as I’ve written before, that Sally Gardner’s Magical Children series represents some of the best writing for developing or newly-confident readers: stories of brilliant and compelling imagination, simply told, with great warmth and a quality of writing not at all constrained by level – though not overreaching it either. It is unimaginably hard to do what Gardner has made look so easy (a little like trying to figure-skate at competition level without training): so many people assume that writing for children is a piece of cake, because you don’t have to try to be clever and it doesn’t call for too many words. This is true in spades of books for beginner readers, where authors are so often tempted either to write whole series of short books with little imaginative or stylistic effort, or to write in their usual style but at less than their usual length or stretch. Gardner is all too rare in understanding the imaginative range and appetite of her readers, and being able to write for them simply and accessibly without all style and spark leaching out. Perhaps it’s part of the magic that there are only six books, but oh how I wish there were more out there of this quality.
Chris Riddell’s three Ottoline books definitely qualify, if few others do. Ottoline is a fabulous heroine, extremely self-possessed and almost unflappable, always resourceful and polite and perfectly kitted-out for every occasion. In Mr. Munroe she has a silent, inscrutable, deeply loyal and extremely hairy sidekick. Ottoline’s parents, Professor and Professor Brown, are explorers and collectors and almost always away from home (hence the self-possessedness and resourcefulness), but in their absence Ottoline is well looked after by a small army of specialised domestic service agencies, from The Home-Cooked Meal Company to Smith & Smith, Pillow-Plumping & Curtain-Drawing Technicians. When things get dull, she can always turn her hand to crimebusting, seafaring or enrolling at a very exclusive school with her new friend Cecily Forbes-Lawrence III. If that sounds somewhat… reality-challenged, it is – and proudly so – but the actual writing is (once your disbelief is properly suspended) straightforward and delivered in very manageable short chunks, beautifully interspersed with classic Riddell illustrations, exquisitely detailed and brilliantly bonkers. Riddell’s publishers (bravo Macmillan) have also made the books, and especially the hardback editions, look quite beautiful, like classic halfbound library books with elaborate gold and silver tooling on the spines. Sadly there seem to be no more Ottolines in the offing, but the three existing are worth reading time and again: there will always be some new detail to delight. (Disappointed Ottolinophiles can also progress to Fergus Crane and the other Far-Flung Adventures by Riddell and long-term collaborator Paul Stewart.)
It’s a world away from Rainbow Magic. A bigger, madder, messier world, but also a brighter, more complicated and more exciting one. Please step in, I think you’ll like it.